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FringeReview UK 2024

Fire Embers Ash

Threedumb Theatre

Genre: Drama, Feminist Theatre, Historical, Theatre

Venue: Barons Court Theatre


Low Down

The true story of how an all-female Soviet flying regiment, nicknamed the Night Witches, took on the Nazis.


Popular culture has featured World War 2 aeroplane scenes for decades, usually bringing to mind Spitfires, Messerschmitts and Hurricanes. But Fire Embers Ash is the true tale of how biplanes made of flimsy wood and fabric took to the skies, playing their part in opposing and reversing the German invasion of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe.

The roots of this tale can be traced back a quarter of a century. One of the tenets of the Russian Revolution was, theoretically at least, gender equality. Women, however, have been compelled to fight for an even footing in a man’s world throughout history and it was seemingly no less easy in the USSR. In the aftermath of German launched Operation Barbarossa in June 1941, men from across the Soviet Union found themselves sent to the front in their droves. Women were officially prevented from participating in active military combat. However, some sought to make a contribution to the motherland’s battle. Pre-war, there had been many, and in some cases pre-eminent, Soviet female pilots and navigators and now Major Marina Raskova (Henriette Laursen) used her influence with Stalin to obtain permission for the creation of the 588 Regiment, an all-female unit.

It is thought around 80 women made up the regiment for the remainder of the war, flying thousands of sorties. Many did not return : the biplanes were constructed from basic material but critically had no armour or gun protection, nor did they typically carry parachutes. They flew at night, partly for operational reasons, but mostly because they would be sitting ducks by daylight. Their modus operandum would be to aim bombs by use of a flare, making them a highly visible target for anti-aircraft defences and enemy fighters. They further used the technique of cutting engines shortly before dropping bombs, effectively gliding overhead, which would make a sound akin to a broomstick, giving rise to their moniker the Night Witches.

The story of the Night Witches was initially buried within the Soviet Union post-war, but came to light as the cold war began to thaw out. Threedumb Theatre bring this relatively unknown story to life, in the three-quarters round Barons Court Theatre. The staging is atmospheric and stark, commensurate with the surroundings, initially with a single model biplane suspended from the ceiling in a spotlight, suggestive of a live mission. The writer, Hailey Mashburn, succeeds commendably in recounting the story and providing the historical backdrop of these underdogs, although there was a nagging sense of relationships not completely formed. The direction by Stephen Smith moves with pace, the changes slick and the use of the model plane as part of the narrative creative. There are creditable performances, most notably by Yvonne Maxwell as Natalya Meklin. The camaraderie is evident, within the military hierarchical structure. It is said that God is in the big and the small ; this is evident as the women grapple with the juxtaposition of being on the front line in the pivotal military conflict of the twentieth century, yet in some cases regressing to teenage girls obsessing with the apparently trivial (boys, hair, make-up). The myriad of emotions (fear, insecurity, pride, post-war hopes) are conveyed by the rest of the cast (Maria Masonou, Stephanie Van Driesen and Maya Waghorn) ; like any military regiment, there is a diverse range of personalities and the disparate aspect of their characters punctuates the scenes. Their acceptance of the inevitability of regimental collateral damage is heartbreaking.

Spike Milligan once published a book “Adolf Hitler: My Part In His Downfall”. Well, this was the Night Witches’. But set against their desperately fragile situation, the piece’s feminist undertones offer profound prescience to the 21st century observer.